Here is a more or less complete list of reasons you might have wanted an Apple Watch in the past year: Because Pharrell and Katy Perry wore one, or because you love watching loading screens. No matter how breathlessly the tech biz hyped smartwatches, no matter how many faster, prettier models came out, no matter how competitive the Jonas Brothers got while wearing one, it was hard to get excited about the idea of actually owning one.
The Apple Watch Series 2 arrives with key upgrades at a key moment. It features built-in GPS and a faster processor, and it’s brighter and more rugged. It also ships with WatchOS 3, which turns a comically overwrought interface into something much cleaner. The Watch can still do many things, even if all but the most important of them are much harder to find now. It looks like the last Watch, but this time Apple seems to have a clear idea of what a smartwatch is for.
More than two years into the smartwatch era, if you can call it that, Apple and others are starting to answer the two questions that matter: What is this thing for, and how the heck do I use it? And they’re all reaching the same conclusion: It’s for fitness. That’s why GPS is suddenly everywhere, despite being bulky and bad on batteries. Pebble is constantly updating its Health app for the same reason Android Wear is deeply integrating things like Strava. When Apple announced the new Watch, it didn’t discuss apps or developers, it ceded the stage to Nike’s Trevor Edwards to explain why big on-screen numbers and perforated bands are great for runners. Apple’s 67-second intro video is almost entirely about doing yoga, swimming, running, and skateboarding (and calling mom). Sure, you can receive notifications or look like Dick Tracy while talking to friends, but the reason you’ll lay out the cash is to track your swims and rides. It’s all so small an ambition for a device everyone promised would liberate us all from smartphones, but there it is.
That’s why the new Watch sounds a lot like what others have been showing off for awhile now. A few weeks ago at IFA in Berlin, Samsung announced the Gear S3, which now has GPS and LTE. (The S3 is much bigger than the S2, which, like, never happens in tech these days.) Samsung also streamlined the Tizen-based interface. Earlier this summer, Google released its latest Android Wear with similarly focused ideas about navigation. Xiaomi, Garmin, Fitbit, and others are offering more or less the same thing–big face, simple interface, loads of fitness features. Even Withings, which makes the world’s least smartwatch-y smartwatch, pitches the Steel HR as a fitness device.
“How the heck do you use it” is becoming clearer, too. A successful smartwatch, it seems, is one you touch as little as possible. It’s all about quick-hit actions–check the time, get directions, remember to buy more toilet paper. “Everything’s designed to be really shallow in terms of the interaction,” says Leor Stern, CEO of watch software-maker Cronologics. “You never really go more than a layer or two into the watch.” Cronologics is building what it hopes will be a universal smartwatch OS. It’s not tightly regulated like Android Wear, or off-limits like WatchOS. Its goal is something easily customized and always fast.
Other manufacturers like this approach. At WWDC, Watch head Kevin Lynch highlighted a faster way to reply to messages, see apps, and change settings before comparing the new with the old. “It’s about seven times faster,” he said, “but it feels about a million times faster.” He got big applause. Likewise, Pebble now puts your stuff in a single, scrollable timeline; Android Wear added complications that let you see more info without touching the screen. Speed isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only important thing.
Manufacturers also realize that a good smartwatch requires very little of your phone. It might be more powerful connected to your phone, but it’s fine on its own. “We err on the side of independence,” Brett Lider, Android Wear’s design chief, told me earlier this summer. “When we talk to people about what their expectations for a smartwatch would be, they expected it to be independent. They don’t want to create mental models about what they can do, they just want it to work.” Samsung and LG are all-in on the idea of LTE-connected, totally self-sufficient smartwatches. So is Apple, if you believe the reports that it will sever the tie to your phone next year.
This is considerably more ambitious than step-tracking. And it’s exactly the right move. Everyone can get behind the idea of a smartwatch that frees you from other gadgets, keeping you connected yet largely free of distractions. People like new devices far more than they like $400 accessories that add to the buzzing on their bodies.
Fitness tracking may not count as a killer app, especially when you can get more features from a cheap wristband or clip-on. But it is, at long last, a primary reason for being. And as designers and developers make smartwatches simpler and more usable, they’re learning that a watch won’t be like an iPhone. It won’t be three devices smushed in a tiny package. Nor will it be an accessory, tethering itself and us to our phones. If the industry gets it right, smartwatches will be something else entirely. Something smaller. Something separate. Something that keeps you connected without keeping you hypnotically in its embrace. That’s a watch people might buy.